The Streetscape Changed Before Breakfast / by Kevin Hsu

[Kevin Hsu]

How strange to witness the transformation of our neighborhood! One moment, you're walking along the street and everything feels placid and cheerful in the brisk winter air. Then turn the corner, and you are greeted by a completely different view. Sometimes it's a shocking new sight--an upthrust tower, a newly-opened expanse of sky--but more often, it's the gradual accretion of changes that have suddenly snowballed into a different scene.

Things change so quickly here, even in a neighborhood that appears relatively stable here in Xuhui District. It's an old part of town, the former French concession, with many examples of heritage architecture and decent legal protections. I thought our area had reached some kind of equilibrium,  but the hints of impending change were all around me. Today they blossomed forth in a sudden, jarring discovery: the breakfast row near Jianguo Road (West), with so many delectable Chinese breakfast treats, is gone! Most of the vendors have left. The place is now gutted.

I miss the friendly face of the 煎饼 maker. He was from up north, but had made a living here in Shanghai for several years. He was young and amiable, always nice to chat with while he scraped the dough over the hot plate and cooked up a tasty breakfast pastry stuffed with eggs, scallions, chili and fried dough. The 包子铺 where I intended to order vegetable and mushroom buns today was similarly kaput. All that's left is a doorway, cemented over, with a red X painted on the wall.

My colleague Helen says the vendors were accused of illegally operating in an area designated for residential buildings. I presume it's the 城管 (cheng guan) who harried them away.* Yet the vendors brought so much character and life--and innumerable tasty treats--to this area of the city, which would otherwise be a gray thoroughfare of walls and closed gates. There's always a balance between grassroots street life and city regulation, but here it seems to have gone awry, which is too bad. I'll miss my morning stroll--the warm spray of steam, the sound of frying oil, the delectable smells wafting across the sidewalk. Even when I didn't buy a bite for breakfast, it still presented a lively tableau of life in this city. It's one more colorful piece of the urban quilt that has faded away.

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*The 城管 (cheng guan) are the highly unpopular municipal bureau-cops who arbitrarily wield city regulations like truncheons. Their behavior ranges from irksome to loathsome to absolutely vile. A small collection of their exploits can be found here, along with a broader analysis here.

The verb I would use to describe actions their actions in this neighborhood is to "赶走" (gan zou) the breakfast vendors. The word could be translated as "shoo or wave away" or "to get rid of," but when applied to human beings rather than sparrows, it's a bit more aggressive. I have settled on "harried," which connotes a sense of harassment and duress.